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Last updateFri, 16 Feb 2018 7pm

Local visionary builds acceptance for innovative housing in Mexico

“One plus one equals three?” Jaime Navarro muses. 

pg3aNavarro is not asking this question because he is afflicted with math anxiety. After all, he is a highly educated industrial management engineer and a recipient of scholarships from the U.S. and Mexican governments who once worked for the Rand Corporation, a U.S. think tank. But that was before he moved to Mexico from Santa Monica, California, and decided to become a farmer of organic ginger, turmeric and berries in order to have the raw materials he needed to recover from a serious illness.

And it was before he, his wife Sara Villalobos and a friend and visionary architect undertook an even newer project – Rancho La Salud Village (Health Ranch Village), a cohousing community just outside Ajijic, using land near his greenhouses, farm fields and the brewery where he produces ginger beer and a turmeric-ginger tonic.

No, Navarro, the engineer turned farmer, is hardly mathematically challenged. When he poses the question “One plus one equals three?” he is thinking up slogans to try to explain cohousing and related ideas, such as “social capital,” especially to Mexican locals, to whom the concept is less familiar than it is to Americans. 

There are about 170 cohousing communities in the United States but, so far, Rancho La Salud seems to be the only one in Mexico. (One may be in the works in San Miguel de Allende.) Apparently, the notion of a community that can be described as half condominium, half co-op, is not exactly spreading like wildfire here. (The first cohousing was built in Denmark in 1972 for 27 families and has taken root most firmly in the Nordic countries of Europe, where these communities are sometimes state owned yet, typically, governed by the consent of residents.)

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“We’re not a commune!” laughs Catherine Stephenson, who, with her husband Allan, constructed at Rancho La Salud the first house of a planned 20 units, some of which will be apartments and duplexes, in a level, open lot with a view of Lake Chapala. 

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Rancho La Salud was already designed and permitted in 2012,” she explained. “We love it and we’re happy with our decision,” she emphasized, but the bare fact that after six years the community is not burgeoning needs explaining. Indeed, at the moment, besides the Stephenson’s home, a common house where Navarro and Villalobos live, a salt-purified swimming pool and one partially built duplex are the only planned structures that have been erected. 

If Rancho La Salud is getting a slow start, it could be for several reasons, including that Mexicans have not quickly warmed to the concept, Navarro said.

“It may also be because we’re selling directly,” Catherine Stephenson added. “Cohousing is not usually sold on the open market with real estate agents. Also, potential new members are vetted – actually, the buyers vet us too – so that hopefully everyone’s on the same page. Our key values are sustainability—solar heating and organic gardens, for example – and a healthy lifestyle. We’re aging in place here.

“But that doesn’t mean there won’t be kids,” she emphasized. “And it doesn’t mean there are dietary restrictions – we don’t require people to eat organically – and there’s no particular religious orientation. We just hope the people we’re attracting share our values.”

“We’re not primarily salesmen,” Navarro added. And, in fact, he seems a lot more interested in explaining how the Latin word communitas (the spirit of community) reflects the desired, egalitarian social relationship in cohousing than he is explaining the profitability of Rancho La Salud. 

Navarro does, however, make the point that most cohousing communities in the United States have a waiting list of buyers and that what may seem like a high price actually reflects intangibles, such as a healthy environment.

“Cohousing tends to be somewhat more expensive than independent housing because of the shared facilities and usually higher development costs,” explained Len Laviolette, who lives in a cohousing community in Portland and plans to visit Rancho La Salud.

While Navarro does not shy away from talking numbers, he nevertheless gravitates toward loftier, abstract matters, such as what he calls “social capital.”

“Wealth is not necessarily defined in monetary terms,” he says, beginning to muse again. “It is also in loving time, in smiles, in care.”

See www.rancholasaludvillage.com.

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